A Pythonesque Armenian

Armenian film-maker Sergei Parajanov
Armenian film-maker Sergei Parajanov
A sculpture by Parajanov
A sculpture purchased by Parajanov, “Man and his mask”

In Yerevan, I have been on a bit of a cultural bender.

For starters I went to the city’s Stanislavsky Russian Theatre to see “жизнь не сыграешь на бис” (Life doesn’t play an encore), a medley of Russian music and poetry. It drew on the work of several 20th century titans, including Vladimir Vysotsky, a favourite of mine, and Marina Tsvetaeva.

It must be intimidating for actors when they work in a theatre named after the great director Konstantin Stanislavsky, whose plea to actors was “keep breaking traditions, I beg you”.

But this troupe from Moscow were spirited and professional, serving up entertainment that had pace and depth. Two actors came amongst the audience and daintily handed out little bunches of grapes. It was a nice touch. After all, the autumn is grape harvest time in Armenia and this is the Caucasus, with its traditions of hospitality.

The next day Heide Rieck, the German writer I mentioned in an earlier post, suggested an outing to the museum in Yerevan dedicated to the work of Sergei Parajanov, Armenian film-maker and artist. I am always happy to be educated so off we went.

The museum is housed in a traditional two-storey Caucasus building. Small museums, if they have charm, are important in the overall cultural scheme of things. And the Sergei Parajanov Museum does have charm.

Parajanov (1924-1990) was a playful iconoclast who had the misfortune to ply his trade as Surrealist artist during the time of the Soviet Union, not an entity noted for its sense of fun and its tolerance of artistic innovation.

The museum has on display more than 1,000 exhibits, including dolls, collages, sculptures and also artworks which Parajanov produced while languishing in a Soviet prison camp. The visitor can watch sequences from his most famous film, “The Color of Pomegranates”, made in 1969.

In photographs, the artist stares out at us with a handsome, unsmiling face. He looks strong, almost fierce, and he sports a dark trimmed beard, moustache and bushy eyebrows. He looks very bright – good company if you’ve got your brain in gear, utterly intimidating if you don’t.

Parajanov's Pythonesque collage
Parajanov’s Pythonesque collage
Parajanov's case becomes an elephant
Parajanov’s case becomes an elephant

So why do I call him a Pythonesque Armenian? Well, his collages can look as if they have come straight out of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”. As soon as I saw the collage he did in 1987 called “Death of my Sister Ruzanna”, I immediately thought “Monty Python”!

Then I read one film critic who said that when when he watched “The Color of Pomegranates”, he thought of Monty Python sketches sending up ever-so-intellectual art films. I know what he meant – there are intense brooding silences.

At the same time, I would not wish to rubbish the film. It has sequences that are spellbindingly beautiful. Time Out Film Guide included Parajanov’s masterpiece in its list of Top 100 Films. It will surely endure for as long as people watch films.

The first version of “The Color of Pomegranates” was called “Sayat Nova” (The King of Song) and it is partly based on the life of the 18th century Armenian poet of that name. But it is not a conventional biography. Sayat Nova’s life serves as the framework for tableaux vivants drawn from the religious and artistic life of his country.

Pomegranates spill their juice forming the shape of a map of old Armenia. The pages of many open books turn in the breeze. A woman dances to the sound of drums in front of great hanging carpets.

Art films are not meant to be minutely dissected. If you have never seen “The Color of Pomegranates”, it is on YouTube. I find it visually stunning.

The Soviet authorities, unfortunately, did not appreciate Parajanov’s work. From 1973 to 1977 he was in a Soviet prison camp and for years he was effectively prevented from film-making. His collages and other art forms were a form of creative release because he couldn’t make films.

Only with the Soviet political thaw in the 1980s was Parajanov able to return to film-making.

Before writing this piece, I looked at my theatre programme to learn the name of the theatre company which had provided the excellent evening of Russian music and poetry.

There are no prizes for guessing this one. I discovered that it was the Parajanov Moscow Art Theatre. I think the artist would have enjoyed the show, including the Armenian grapes.

Armenia, the first Christian nation

Garni's pagan temple
Garni’s pagan temple

If people know just one thing about Armenia, they know that this was the first Christian nation.

The traditionally accepted date of Armenia’s adoption of Christianity as state religion is 301 AD. It is a big part of Armenia’s self-image that this country led the way in the official acceptance of Christ’s teachings.

In recent years some scholars have made a tentative case for Ethiopia having precedence — they have cast doubt over the accuracy of the Armenian date of 301. It would make some Armenians cross if scholarly opinion ever conclusively deprived them of the title of first Christian state.

But there is a question that interests me more than who came first. It is this: how was Christianity spread in the early centuries? After arriving in Armenia, I realised with a start that I knew little about the first centuries of the world’s most important religion.

I chiefly had in my head the image of the early Christian as martyr, cruelly fed to the lions by the Romans. But in Armenia I was suddenly confronted with the image of early Christian as warrior, waging a religious war against pagans.

One secondary source on Armenia’s history is Yuri Babayan’s English-language website armenianhistory.info.

He writes that King Tiridates, having converted to Christianity, “implanted the new religion with fire and sword. The sanctuaries and heathen temples were destroyed throughout the country. The only pagan temple remained intact to this day is Garni.”

Now there is nothing in the Sermon on the Mount, of course, about the need to smite the heathen with fire and sword. This bloodletting happened 17 centuries ago, but still I find it more than a little disappointing. It is surely not what Jesus Christ had in mind. King Tiridates had, in theory, accepted a gospel of love.

I went to the temple at Garni, on a day trip out of Yerevan. It was a welcome change from the big city. In a taxi we drove along nearly empty roads up into the mountains. The sun shone, the trees were in their autumn colours and the great white majesty of Ararat dominated the view off to the southwest.

Garni was built on the edge of a cliff in the second half of the first century AD and is mentioned in the Annals of Tacitus. It is the only Greco-Roman style colonnaded building anywhere in the former Soviet Union. Dedicated to the sun god Mihr, it was built by an Armenian king following rules of sacred geometry. The most sacred numbers were three, six and nine, the last being the holiest number of them all.

Today Garni is one of Armenia’s most popular tourist attractions. What visitors see is essentially a reconstruction, completed in the mid-1970s. The temple is also the main shrine for a small number of neo-pagans, who tap into Armenia’s pre-Christian beliefs which King Tiridates did not root out. They come here for ceremonies particularly on March 21, the pagan New Year.

The entrance to Geghard monastery
The entrance to Geghard monastery
Autumn colours at Geghard monastery
Autumn colours at Geghard monastery

From Garni we drove on a few kilometres to one of Christianity’s holiest sites in Armenia, Geghard monastery. This is a place of great tranquillity and beauty. In the summer months many visitors come, but in October it retained the feel of a sanctuary, a retreat.

Geghard, the Monastery of the Holy Lance, stands near the head of a valley with tall cliffs on three sides. It has been a site of Christian worship since the fourth century when St Gregory the Illuminator, who converted King Tiridates to Christianity, founded a monastery complex here. Some churches within the complex are dug out of the cliff face.

The monastery gets its name from the fact that for centuries it kept the lance which Christians believe pierced the side of Jesus when he was still nailed on the cross.

Geghard monastery is emphatic that it has the genuine article. According to a sign for visitors: “Other spears lay claim to being the true spear, including ones in Vienna, Kraków and Rome but the Geghard spear is celebrated in Armenia as the one True Lance.”

Society wedding in a church at Echmiadzin
Society wedding in a church at Echmiadzin

The day before my pilgrimage to Geghard monastery I went to Echmiadzin, about 20 km to the west of Yerevan. This is Armenia’s Vatican and it was the capital of the country when Christianity became the state religion.

According to tradition, St Gregory was divinely guided to build the first Mother Church of Armenia (Mayr Tachar) in Echmiadzin on the spot where a beam of light fell. Building took place in 301-303. The original structure fell into ruin and successive building took place at later periods, but Echmiadzin cathedral is considered the oldest in the world. Right now it is having a bit of a facelift.

In its treasury is the Holy Lance, set in a gold and silver casing, which was once at Geghard. The treasury also has what it describes as fragments of Noah’s Ark. According to the Book of Genesis, Noah’s Ark came to rest on a mountain in the Ararat range, which is clearly visible from Echmiadzin. Armenians consider themselves to be direct descendants of Noah.

I travelled to Echmiadzin on a Sunday and the city was buzzing with life. At the Surp Gayane church a succession of weddings was taking place. Just outside the church were several violinists and a white Rolls-Royce.

So where do Armenia’s posh neo-pagan weddings happen? At Garni Temple, of course.

The Armenian Genocide, 100 years on

The eternal flame at the Armenian Genocide memorial
The eternal flame at the Armenian Genocide memorial
Conference participants pose with their wreath
Conference participants pose with their wreath

White carnations and red roses set the tone around the eternal flame at the Armenian Genocide memorial.

Atop a hill in Yerevan, the fire is inside a bowl surrounded by 12 great slabs of basalt representing the provinces, inside Turkey, where Armenians lived before the mass killings perpetrated a century ago. In 1900 about two million Armenians lived in Turkey’s eastern provinces. Twenty years later there were none – they either died violently or fled or were forcibly converted to Islam.

This memorial centre is redolent of loss. Mount Ararat, a national symbol for Armenians, dominates the view to the south. The mountain is on Turkish soil.

I have come here with participants in a conference on the Genocide. After they lay some flowers at the memorial we walk to the museum. Just outside is a small group of visitors led by a guide. He gestures towards Ararat and tells the group that only 20 km away is the traditional homeland of Western Armenia, now part of Turkey.

In flawed but clearly understandable English, he tells the group: “Once it will be liberated again.” This is not the view of the Armenian government, but his words still send a shiver right through me.

Emotions are raw in Armenia. Sometimes it can feel as if the killings happened only yesterday. Turkey, a NATO member, and Armenia, a Russian ally, are on glacial terms. The border between the two has been closed for decades. Russian troops, stationed on Armenian soil, guard the frontier which is dotted with watchtowers.

The Armenian Genocide is a big, depressing subject. But in Yerevan, during this centennial year, it is a subject that cannot be avoided. Here is the briefest of summaries of what happened and a look at why this is a story still unfolding.

The official Armenian estimate of the number of Armenians killed in what was then the Ottoman Empire is 1.5 million. Some historians put the figure lower, in the range of 600,000 to one million.

By the time of the massacres the Ottoman Empire was in serious decline, having lost very extensive territories. In 1911, Italy made an unprovoked attack on the Turkish province of Libya. The two Balkan Wars (1912-1913) then deprived the empire of nearly all its remaining territory in Europe.

Declining empires, it seems, sometimes go out not with a bang but a whimper. The Ottoman Empire, however, does not fit this mould. It went out with a boom that destroyed many lives.

In the First World War the Turks fought alongside Germany and Austria-Hungary, so one of their enemies was the Russian Empire. After Russia suffered disastrous defeats on the Eastern Front in 1914, at Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes, it had to pull troops away from the Caucasus front with Turkey.

Russia then actively recruited volunteers, including Armenians, to bolster its depleted army in the Caucasus. The Russians proceeded to inflict a most terrible defeat on the Ottoman Third Army at the battle of Sarikamish, at the end of 1914 and start of 1915. Enver Pasha, one of the “Three Pashas” leading Turkey, blamed the Armenians for this bloodbath and the stage was set for Turkey’s revenge.

But much needs to be added to this barest of outlines. Armenians suffered in a whole series of massacres in the Ottoman Empire before 1915. There were killings in 1894, 1895, 1896 and 1909.

There are themes present in the violence against Armenians which have echoes in later 20th century genocides. Armenians tended to be better off than the Turks. Many were merchants or industrialists while Turks were often peasant farmers or low-paid functionaries. “The Jews of the Orient” is a label that has sometimes been pinned on Armenians.

Ronald Grigor Suny, in “‘They can live in the Desert but Nowhere Else’: A History of the Armenian Genocide”, highlights competition for land as one factor behind anti-Armenian feeling. In the Rwanda Genocide, land hunger was also an issue.

A tragedy in three acts

Back to 1915. The museum in Yerevan sets out a tragedy in three acts. The first act was the extermination of Armenian soldiers serving in the Turkish army. The second act was the murder of business, political and cultural leaders. The final sickening act was the deportations to the deserts of Syria.

This has to be one of the truly terrible images of the 20th century. Straggling lines of Armenians, many of them women and children, made the nightmare journey on foot to the desert. If they weren’t shot, abducted or starved en route they died on arrival at concentration camps.

One notorious camp was Meskene on the Euphrates river. Typhus, cholera and hunger claimed many lives. There was also deliberate killing.

The museum says of the camp: “Armenians were burned with oil, asphyxiated with wet wood smoke and blown up with explosives. The number of Armenians killed in Meskene during the Genocide is estimated to be 100,000.”

At the time of the massacres, the world did sit up and take notice. In May 1915 the governments of Britain, France and Russia issued a joint statement denouncing the “crimes of Turkey against humanity and civilisation” and calling Turkey to account.

The media covered the atrocities. The New York Times, by one count, carried 145 articles in 1915 alone.

But killings resumed in 1920-1923 and the world seemed to forget about the Armenians. In the museum there is a chilling quote from Adolf Hitler, who said in 1939: “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians.”

Successive Turkish governments have not been apologetic about the wholesale slaughter. The official Turkish view of events is that the deaths occurred during a civil war in which both Armenians and Turks died. The Turkish government vehemently rejects the position taken by Armenia that this was genocide.

Some scholars endorse the Turkish view that this was not a genocide and point to the fact that the Turks, unlike the Nazis with their persecution of Jews, made no attempt to pursue their victims beyond the borders of their state.

But although there is no complete consensus, there has been a discernible shift with more scholars, spiritual leaders and governments backing the view that genocide is the correct term.

In April, Pope Francis said at a Mass in the Armenian Catholic rite at St. Peter’s Basilica that humanity had lived through three massive tragedies over the past century.

“The first, which is widely considered ‘the first genocide of the 20th century’, struck your own Armenian people,” he said, naming the other two as the crimes committed by Nazism and Stalinism.

“Concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it,” said the pope.

An angry Turkey promptly recalled its envoy to the Vatican.

Several of the world’s most powerful governments, including the United States and Germany, have not backed the view that it was genocide.

Engaging with the issue

In Yerevan, I have met a number of people who have engaged with the issue of the massacres because they feel more needs to be done to redress the wrongs done.

I talked to Heide Rieck, a German poet and novelist who has made it her business to publicise the Armenian cause in her native land. Back in 1915, Germany seems to have made no attempt to restrain its ally Turkey.

Rieck, a grey-haired woman from Bochum in her mid-seventies, first heard about the mass killings from a Turk in eastern Turkey 30 years ago. He told her how very cruel it had all been.

Undaunted by her lack of knowledge of Armenian, Rieck worked with a colleague to publish a book of Armenian verse in German translation. The book, entitled “Und sticht in meine Seele” (And it stings in my soul), contains poetry by Paruyr Sevak (1924-1971), one of Armenia’s best-loved modern poets.

I asked about the themes of Sevak’s poetry. “The main theme is love,” said Rieck, adding that Sevak’s death in a car accident had been widely blamed on the KGB since he was critical of Soviet corruption. She said she was in Armenia this time partly to plant some trees as part of a garden to nurture Armenian-German friendship..

A billboard commemorating the Genocide
A billboard commemorating the Genocide

Rieck told me about a conference and we walked together to the National Academy of Sciences of Armenia, venue of an international gathering with the title “Armenian Genocide – 100, From Recognition to Reparation”. I just went in and was made welcome.

It was a conference of more than 100 academics from Armenia, Russia, Europe, Australia and North America. They looked at a wide range of topics, including the impact of the Genocide on the arts, but the meatiest, most newsy issue was reparations from Turkey.

A lecturer in general education from the American University of Armenia, David Davidian, told the conference that he estimated the material losses of Armenians in the Genocide at three trillion U.S. dollars. This did not take into account any compensation for loss of life or injury.

One participant, Armen Marukyan, gave me a copy of his book “The Basis and Opportunities of Applying to International Court on the Case of the Armenian Genocide”. It goes into legalities in some detail. Marukyan writes that before the Genocide, Armenians in eastern Turkey had 1,860 churches and chapels, 451 monasteries and about 2,000 schools.

The conference had the usual formality of academia, but it also felt quite cosy. The community of genocide specialists is fairly small. At the end a portly Russian professor with a red bow tie and matching handkerchief in his jacket pocket, Vladimir Sakharov, grandly handed out medals. Have we suddenly been taken in a time machine back to the Soviet era, I wondered.

The conference decided not to make any formal announcement to the media about its proceedings. I think conversation among academics about reparations from Turkey will rumble on for a while before they take any advice to the government, which has not so far brought a legal case against Turkey. From 1920 to 1991 Armenia was part of the Soviet Union and was not in a position to bring a law suit.

At conference close we all climbed into a bus and headed off to the Armenian Genocide memorial to lay the flowers. Just below the centre is one of many billboards in the city commemorating the centenary. Its message reads “I remember and demand”.

No one who has studied the chilling events of 1915 in Anatolia can doubt the scale of the atrocities.

But what exactly does Armenia demand one century later? Only Armenia, of course, can decide.